“Dear Enya, my mom played your CD almost every day in our kitchen”.
“Dear Enya, I’m slightly defective regarding music because I binge and purge”; “Dear Enya, as I’m writing to you now, I’m playing ‘Orinoco Flow,’ and tears are falling.” These deeply sincere evocations come from American poet Abe Louise Young’s ‘Dear Enya and Dear Sinead’. Here, Young assumes the virtue of confession, of prayer, opening a direct channel between worlds both material and divine.
Since the ambient avant-pop album Watermark, released thirty years ago, Enya has cultivated a unique, virtually devotional connection with her listeners, even to those she might never have anticipated reaching — those whose moms played her CDs in the kitchen; those who may have caught an impression of Enya’s signature sound in one of eighty-odd film and television soundtracks; those for whom Enya’s soundscapes summoned actual spaces and tangible places, as comfortable and inviting to inhabit as a wooly sweater on a grey day.
Enya needs only one name. And this name conjures a profound and intimate recognition, a rare, nearly religious kind of relationship between artist and audience. Ironically, that emotional response is in large part technological. In addition to the album’s watery, organic themes — ships, shores, rivers, storms, flows — the recordings are dripping wet with layered synthesizers, and voices awash in a maximal, digital aesthetic. Despite the often-derisive designation of New Age or World Beat, Watermark is a mistress-piece of sonic experimentation. And Enya is a reclusive trailblazer for women in electronic music composition.
“The reason people say it’s religious-sounding is the amount of reverb we use,” Enya deadpanned in a 1989 interview in Musician Magazine. It’s only a joke in part. The album emerged at a moment when technical innovation in musical instruments and recording studio techniques reached high tide. 1988 was a milestone year for the global digital instrument industry — growing in value from $2.2 to $3.6 billion US between 1982 and 1987 — and Watermark owes many of its mystical characteristics as much to new musical products made by Yamaha, Roland, and Alesis, as it does to lyricist Roma Ryan, producer Nicky Ryan, or Enya herself.
At the core of the album’s style is the semiotic significance of reverberation. The artist Brandon LaBelle, in his 2010 book Acoustic Territories, describes echo as a “proliferating multiplication” which “partially makes unintelligible the original sound.” This indistinct rendering works to decenter focus upon the voice and its bodily origins, shifting it instead toward the surrounding elements of mise-en-scène.
Listening to Watermark becomes a purely acousmatic experience, wherein the literal meaning of Enya’s words — some in Latin, some in Gaelic — matters less than the placement of the voice within an intricate embroidery of sound. Enya’s is a voice proliferated and multiplied ad infinitum into abstraction — a voice without a body, post-human, technotopian, and inherently otherworldly. It’s a voice so supernatural that we want to respond to it, to talk back to it, to talk into it as if it were the wind.
Echo implies distance, movement, migration, pilgrimage, time. Songs like ‘On Your Shore’, ‘Exile’, and global megahit ‘Orinoco Flow’ grapple with these themes: “My light shall be the moon,” Enya sings on ‘Exile’, “and my path the ocean.” Later, on ‘Evening Falls’: “I am home, I know the way / I am home, feeling oh so far away.”
It’s little wonder so many people associate Watermark with epic voyages: “Her litany of places to sail away to conjures exotic images far away from Enya’s Ireland and far, far away from that hot family car trip where I first heard this song,” Dean Colpack writes in a primer to her music; Luke Turner of The Quietus recalls envisioning “weird, plastic, shimmering keyboard sounds and strings that would slide like water droplets down the window on car journeys during which Watermark was a frequent soundtrack”; “I’ll keep one CD playing in my car for months (or, to be honest, years),” writes Abe Louise Young: “Listen to it unceasingly.” The vast and impossible spaces created by Enya’s enormous echoes were large enough to live in, to travel through, transcending nations and borders, genres and generations.
I, too, listened to Watermark in the car with my mother. I was ten, and I’d just found out that my parents were divorcing. We were on the way to my aunt’s house in a tiny, rural Alberta village unimaginatively called Smith, driving fast in my mom’s 1981 Camaro. Beside the car drifted by seemingly endless fields of wheat, corn, and canola, lazy pastures of grazing cattle, and yawning meadows dotted with towering, cylindrical bales of hay — infinite expanses of Canadian prairie befitting a Pink Floyd album cover. Enya’s flawless harmonies and gentle arpeggios, playing over and over on the car’s cassette deck, momentarily settled the foreboding, the traumas of the immediate past, and the looming uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Listening to Watermark in 2018, it is difficult not to long for that sense of optimistic melancholy — or melancholic optimism — that pervaded Enya’s most recognizable work, and more broadly, its era. Today, the notion of shores more likely invokes images of offshore drilling, poisoned shorelines, beached whales, or desperate migrants inundated by unwelcoming waters, than exotic escapades on the high seas. We cannot simply sail away from these realities.
1988 was a more promising time, a time in which we were becoming aware of the scale of challenges that faced us — international conflict, climate change, an increasingly globalized economy — yet still held the belief that we could meet them head-on. Enya’s Watermark envisions a post-apocalyptic water-world that is not dystopian, but rather, like Earth after the flood.
Ryan Alexander Diduck is the author of Mad Skills: MIDI and Music Technology in the 20th Century. Find him on Twitter.